Storylines and position battles to watch at Panthers training camp
There is a point in the Broadway smash “Hamilton” where the audience has been wrung dry. Duels, deaths and illicit love affairs have sent just about everyone over the emotional edge in the musical about the life of the guy on the front of the $10 bill.
Two characters face the crowd and say plaintively: “Can we get back to politics?! Please?”
I know this is hard to imagine, but the audience sighs with relief at this line. They realize they are about to find safer ground. The emotional hullabaloo can subside for a while.
This, to me, is what the Carolina Panthers’ 24th training camp feels like. It is a “Can we get back to football?” sort of moment, where a team that once again has at least an outside shot at winning the Super Bowl can step back into the spotlight after an offseason dominated by a tumultuous ownership change.
Panthers fans who make the 75-mile sojourn from Charlotte to Wofford College in Spartanburg can relax a little and enjoy the familiar rhythms of the preseason: Ron Rivera staring through his sunglasses, shoulder pads popping in the heat, Cam Newton and Thomas Davis gleefully trash-talking with each other.
There will be rookies trying to impress and veterans trying to hold on for one more year. There will be footballs boomed into the air by Graham Gano and others plucked from the air by a revamped cast of wide receivers. There will bored kids sliding down the hills at Wofford and thousands of people screaming “L-u-u-u-k-e!”
It will feel a lot like it always has, even though a lot of things are different and more will change soon.
A jolt of energy
Most notably, billionaire David Tepper has bought the team and brought with him a welcome jolt of energy and ideas. My guess is this will be the next-to-last training camp the Panthers hold at Wofford — they are contracted to old owner Jerry Richardson’s alma mater through 2019 for this summer session.
By 2020, though, the Panthers very well could be somewhere else every July and August, likely around the Carowinds area on some new practice fields that would serve the team during the season as well.
But for now, the players will do the kinds of things they have done for two dozen summers: They will be checking into the dorm at Wofford on Wednesday morning; tooling around the college on a variety of golf carts (Thomas Davis usually has the sweetest ride); playing cards or catching a nap on the couches at the campus life center. And, of course, practicing in the heat.
The team will absorb young Panthers rookies like wide receiver D.J. Moore, cornerback Donte Jackson and safety Rashaan Gaulden with an old Panthers rookie like new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who at 66 is exactly the same age as all three of those players put together.
Turner’s ability to harness Newton’s talent will be one of the top storylines for a team that has made the playoffs four times in the past five years. We really won’t know how the Turner-Newton thing is going, though, until Carolina plays one of the Panthers’ most attractive regular-season openers ever – a Sept. 9 home date against the Dallas Cowboys. Upper-deck nosebleed seats at Bank of America Stadium for that one are going for $250 – at least – on the secondary ticket market.
Still, only a prelude
Everything before that Cowboys game is ultimately just a prelude. Training camp is occasionally quite entertaining, but it can also be a slog. It is not designed to be an amusement park for anyone – players, coaches or fans. It is more like studying for a test that is still weeks away.
But it is football, and we can all be grateful for that.
It has nothing to do with Jerry Richardson statues, or whether the NFL logo at midfield will be placed, or how many tax dollars will ultimately be thrown at the Panthers to ensure their permanent stadium stays uptown right where it is now.
It is just the game. The NFL never reaches the sort of sweaty purity that high school football does, because money gets in the way in all professional leagues.
But training camp is where it comes the closest.
So bring it on. It’s time to get back to football — please.